We don’t normally pay too much attention to forty-ninth anniversaries, but let’s make an exception for the heroes aboard the so-called ‘Contraceptive Train’. For the uninitiated, that’s not some obscure Victorian method of avoiding conception involving prayer and a steam engine.
It’s a real live event that took place on 22 May 1971 when a group of determined women foregathered at Connolly Station in Dublin, took the train to Belfast and went shopping. Once again, for the uninitiated, they weren’t in pursuit of bargains in stores whose names have long since passed on to that great Bankruptcy Court in the sky, they were shopping for contraceptives. Because, awful to relate, those latex products which are now openly displayed on pharmacy shelves and can be purchased in vending machines as if they were bubble gum—though please learn to tell the two apart—were once illegal in the Republic of Ireland. That’s ‘illegal’ as in ‘verboten’, as in ‘we’re going to hang you out to dry if we catch you with one’, as in‘ latex should only be employed in the rubber gloves Mum uses for washing up’. They had been illegal since the passage of the 1935 Criminal Law Amendment Act, a piece of progressive legislation passed to protect innocent women from the wiles of male lotharios who might seek to persuade them to engage in sexual congress in which the objective was male gratification, rather than childbirth. The most vulnerable women, were, of course, those who were married to said Lotharios, and were thus exposed to the dire prospect of not having at least a dozen children.
In the absence of the Devil’s rubbers those who wished to avoid conception could always resort to abstinence, or the top of a Guinness bottle.
The women, forty seven in all, were mostly members of the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement. They were preparing to defy convention, the law, and their Mammies by bringing back an array of contraceptive devices from the holiday home of Satan himself, Belfast. To a 1960s feminist being on the contraceptive train was like being in the GPO in 1916 was to a Republican, or being at the first U2 gig in the Dandelion market is to a slacker. The idea was to purchase a plethora of prophylactics, present them to customs officials on their return to Dublin, and wait to be hauled before the beak.
The problem was that buying certain products turned out to be more difficult than they imagined. Condoms were readily available, as was contraceptive jelly, but the Golden Ticket was the acquisition of the infamous ‘pill’. Coming back from Belfast without the ‘pill’ would be like returning from Paris without one of those cheap metal facsimilies of the Eiffel Tower.
When one of the leading Irish feminists of her generation – and every generation since – Nell McCafferty, walked up to the counter of a chemist shop in Belfast and asked for the pill she was, in turn, politely requested to produce her prescription. As she had led a sheltered life since moving south she didn’t have one. Now what? There were probably a few medical practitioners among the travelling party but they weren’t carrying their prescription pads. Then someone had the bright idea of buying aspirin over the counter and removing the packaging. Would anyone in the Republic be able to tell the difference anyway? So, that was the fiendish contraceptive they presented at the barrier (no pun intended) at Connolly station.
So, the customs men might have thought they were confiscating ‘the dreaded pill’ but it was something far less morally repugnant. While the women on the contraceptive train intended to cause the Irish authorities a headache, they were also decent enough to provide a ready remedy.
When they returned to Dublin their purchases were flaunted openly. I mean, if you’ve got it, flaunt it, right? Some of the women went so far as to risk arrest by blowing up condoms and trailing them in their wake. However, it is just possible they were returning to family homes where they had children who liked to play with balloons.
Progressives cheered on while the offending women waltzed past customs officers too embarrassed to arrest them. Conservatives tut tutted and wondered what the world was coming to.
But what the customs officers succeeded in confiscating was not packets of cycle regulators but something far more Anidin.